[12 November 2008]
Pulitzer prize-winning author Larry McMurtry’s latest collection of tales covers some terrain he knows particularly well—being a “bookman”.
In a rambling memoir that begins with his childhood and continues to the present, McMurtry describes the origins of his love for books, and the rise and fall of the antiquarian book industry in America. Occasionally he takes a trip to the UK or continental Europe to pursue particular commissions or especially attractive and rare collections, but most of the action takes place in the US. This memoir reads like a conversation with a beloved elder: a series of short musings on the nature of the used book trade and anecdotes about various business dealings McMurtry has had over a long career as a writer and a bookdealer.
McMurtry begins at the beginning, describing his first encounter with an adventure book for boys. For such a literary figure, it is a surprise to learn that he grew up in a home with no books in it. The author doesn’t recall being taught to read in those early days on a Texan cattle ranch, but he remembers clearly the day that a cousin dropped off a box of cast-off books. On the day those first books came into his life, McMurtry recalls he was sick in bed at six or seven years old, “closeted like a tiny Proust”. The memoir is far from chronological, moving from youth to early career to later writing and back to many anecdotal remarks about dealings with particular individuals in the book trade.
Memory is a fuzzy thing in this book, where McMurtry recalls certain transactions with what seems to be perfect clarity, and in other cases can’t remember critical details at all. The chapters are generally no longer than two or three pages, and several barely comprise a few paragraphs, so the pace keeps moving right along. McMurtry’s tone is folksy and comfortable. When he has finished what he has to say about a particular estate sale or an auction, he ends the chapter (often abruptly) and moves on to some other half-buried memory.
McMurtry goes into some detail about this or that aspect of the collections that he assembled after deciding to turn his early love of books into a profession. From comics to rare signed copies to catalogs of book collections, many genres receive honorable mention. One important collection to develop early on in one’s bookselling career is apparently that of reference; McMurtry notes, “I have always believed in having as many reference books as possible, although, of course, in the age of Google, they are not as vital as they were in 1966.” As someone who aspires to own a complete set of the venerable Oxford English Dictionary before I die, I can appreciate the value of having a reference work at one’s fingertips, even with the Internet providing more information than I could ever want or appreciate, just a click away. Although I think possessing a copy of the OED is achievable in my lifetime, assembling anything like McMurtry’s bookstore’s current collection of around 400,000 used books, housed in Archer City, Texas is out of the league of most mortals.
The author also muses from time to time about some of the writing that made him famous, and is realistic about being better known for his screenplays than most of his novels, Lonesome Dove being a notable exception. He claims that novel is a Western version of the classic, Gone with the Wind. Having studied at Rice University in Texas, McMurtry writes that later on, “Rice graciously offered to name a reading room after me and I ungraciously declined, my grounds being that having things named after me makes me feel posthumous.”
McMurtry waxes poetic about his love of books, and the sentiment that e-books and digital reading will never replace the physical objects. He writes, “Everything there is to know about a given volume may be only a click away, but there are still a few of us who’d rather have the book than the click. A bookman’s love of books is a love of books, not merely of the information in them.”
After spending much of his memoir relating anecdotes about buying this collection of so-and-so’s precious volumes, or missing out on a sought-after book at an auction, McMurtry again addresses the technology issue. With so many people doing so much reading online these days, it sometimes seems as if we’re reading more but less in depth or at length. The author comments:
Today the sight that discourages book people most is to walk into a public library and see computers where books used to be. In many cases not even the librarians want books to be there. What consumers want now is information, and information increasingly comes from computers. That is a preference I can’t grasp, much less share, though I’m well aware that computers have many valid uses.
While I can’t quite agree with McMurtry that even librarians don’t want books to be in libraries, it certainly seems true that computers are taking up some of the space that used to belong to the books.
With all the buying and selling and writing that McMurtry has done throughout his career it is something of a wonder that he could find any time to actually read. He describes his fixation with certain topics, like a particular strain of biographies, or an interesting grouping of fumetti noir, Italian comics from the ‘60s and ‘70s that started out as sexually suggestive and blossomed into outright pornography by the 1980s. The author is nothing if not open-minded in his reading interests, which really encompass a broad range of topics and writing styles.
Some readers may find that even though they are interested in books, McMurtry’s store of knowledge about used books and the book trade will be overwhelming. That said, for those who share McMurtry’s love of books, and who are fascinated by the used book trade, this will be a wonderful read.